Saturday, July 28, 2001

Too soon old, too late smart
Rani Sircar

"YOUTH is wasted on the young", observed Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) Quite true — but only upto a point. Many of us would agree, that if only we had had the wisdom and experience of age in our youth, we would have taken different roads, made better choices and enjoyed life more fully all those years ago. Age can truly appreciate the health and strength, the multiple choices and the limited responsibility — all that youth takes so lightly, so much for granted, and shrugs off with such indifference. But circumstances alter cases.

In India, sadly, specially among the underprivileged, children hardly know the joys of childhood, let alone youth. Even as they cease to be toddlers they are pushed into the lowest ranks of the world’s workforce; made into hewers of wood and drawers of water, and often work longer hours than their elders. And who does not know of at least one or two young men and women who have had to, perforce and prematurely, take on the cares and worries of parenthood and the burden of a household; been made old before their time, because a father has died young? Too soon old indeed, and in truth unfortunate. Often worthy citizens, but tired out before they can be smart!


Too soon old, too late smart. Much has been said and written about both youth and age over the centuries. They have been compared and contrasted; and there are as many different perceptions about each of these unavoidable preordained periods of life, as there are different perceptions regarding the desirability or worth or the pleasures of youth versus age. Cato the Censor (234-149 BC) for instance, felt that a long life depended upon the early abandonment of the dissipation of youth. Whether this is so is as questionable as whether long life is desirable. Indeed hardly more than two hundred years later, another famous Roman, Seneca (4 BC — 65 AD), thought, "Old age is an incurable disease," and centuries earlier the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC) had said "What also is an old man but voice and shadow?" Nearer our own time, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wisely observed, "Every man desires to live long, but no one would be old". And certainly through the ages beauty care in every land has concentrated on looking as young as possible for as long as possible. However, in his poem, The Old woman Joseph Cambell (1879-1844) finds

"As a white candle

In a holy place,

So is the beauty

Of an aged face".

In contrast to Seneca and Euripides, Samual Johnson (1700-1784) found "Flaming Youth" insufferable. In Rasselas he described them thus, "Their mirth was without images; their laughter without motive; their pleasures were gross and sensual in which the mind had no part. Their conduct was at once wild and mean: they laughed at order and law; but the frown of power dejected and the eye of wisdom abashed them". Certainly the inexperienced confidence and assertiveness of youth often irritate. "Young men are apt to think of themselves wise enough as drunken men are apt to think of themselves sober enough," wrote Lord Chesterfield to his son; while to quote Samuel Johnson again, this time from The Rambler "Youth enters the world with very happy prejudices in her favour". And, in the same vein, "It is very natural for young men to be vehement, acrimonious and severe".

Many have commented on the folly, heedlessness and illusions of youth.

"Nourishing a youth sublime

With the fairy tales of science

And the long result of Time",

Tennyson (1809-1892) says mockingly; and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) asks sadly,

"O Memory, where is now my youth

Who used to say that Life was Truth?"

While R.L. Stevenson (1850-1894) cries in annoyance, "For God’s sake give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself"! F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) thinks, "Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of Chemical Madness". However, "There is a feeling of Eternity in youth which makes up for everything," Writes William Hazlitt (1778-1830), "To be young is to be as one of the immortal Gods".

In his old age Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946) wondered pensively, "Am I the person who used to wake in the middle of the night and laugh with the joy of living? Who worried about the existence of God, and danced with young ladies till the lark-light? Who sang Auld Lang Syne, and howled with sentiment and more than once gazed at the full moon through a blur of great romantic tears?" It is surely no bad thing to be somewhat unwise and joyous in youth like old Pearsall Smith, especially when we remember that, "When the age is in, the wit is out." (Shakespeare — 1564-1616 — in Much Ado About Nothing). And you remember poor old King Lear who admitting he was "Four score and upward," confessed, "But to deal plainly I am not in my perfect mind"?

Too soon old, too late smart. Not only Shakespeare, but Goethe (1749-1832) too would not agree. For in Faust Goethe said, "Old we grow indeed, but who grows wise? And the same sentiment was echoed in a song of the 1960s, Older but not wiser. However, Rollin John Walls (1848-1923) described growing old not as growing wise, nor as growing foolish, but as,

"A little more tired at close of day,

A little less anxious to have our way;

A little less ready to scold and blame,

A little more care of a brother’s name;

And so we are nearing our journey’s end

Where time and eternity meet and blend."

Anyhow, though Euripides (48C-406 BC) thought, "Youth is the best time to be rich and the best time to be poor", inexperienced youth has more than its share of woes, problems and longings; and as Swift said in his perspicacity, "No wise man ever wished to be younger." For as Samuel Butler (1835-1902) explained, "Growing is not the easy, plain sailing business that it is commonly supposed to be: it is hard work — harder than any but a growing boy can understand; it requires attention and you are not strong enough to attend to your bodily growth and to your lessons too." Mind you all this applies just as much to girls. Willa Cather put it succinctly, "If youth did not matter so much to itself, it would never have the heart to go on." Perhaps Fenita English summed up most of what has ever been said about youth and at the same time explained half of the world’s woes and worries and more than half of its hopes, when she said to Bergen Evans, early in this century, "All adolescents are, in a sense, psychotic."

Now, youth and love seem almost synonymous terms. "It is natural for a young man to love, but a crime for an old one," comments Publius Syrus (1 BC) in his Maxims. Galett Burgess (1866-1951) puts it another way, "When the waitress puts the dinner on the table, the old man look at the dinner. The young man look at the waitress." But one thing is certain, "Youth’s a stuff will not endure" (Shakespeare Twelfth Night). And regretting his past youth A.E. Houseman (1859-1936) says,

"Now times are altered; if I care

To buy a thing, I can;

The pence are here, and here’s the fair,

But where’s the lost young man?"

Comparing and contrasting the way in which youth and age conduct their affairs, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who knew more than a thing or two about many things, wrote, "Young men in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet: fly to the end without consideration of the means and degrees... Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success." Bacon was also of the opinion that, "Young men are fitter to invent than to judge, fitter for execution than for counsel and fitter for new projects than for settled business; the experience of age (i.e. old man) in all things that fall within the compass of it, directeth them; but in new things abuseth them."

Asschylus (525-456 BC) thought, "Age is more just than youth." Centuries later, George Santayana (1863-1952) more or less agreed with Asschylus saying, "My old age judges more charitably and thinks better of mankind than my youth ever did." But Bacon thought that with regard to justice "Perhaps youth will have the pre-eminence as Age hath for the politic."

In April 1936, Franklin D. Roosewelt said: "Flaming Youth (echoing Samuel Johnson?) has become a flaming question. And youth comes to us wanting to know what we propose to do about a society that hurts so many of them." That "flaming question" remains a flaming question, does it not? In India as in every other land. Another question that seems to have remained the same over the centuries and is related to the "flaming question" is the bridging of the generation gap. In the Iliad, Homer (circa 1200-850 BC) has Prism, king of Troy say, "I shall go out with the chariots to counsel and command, for that is the privilege of the old; the young must fight in the ranks." When age claims this or that privilege it always puts youth’s hackles up. And naturally, Menander (342-291 B.C.) the Greek poet and writer of comedies observed that "An old man is never welcome with the young." And Samuel Johnson, who as we have seen, had so much to say about youth and age, wrote "The conversation of the old and the young ends generally with contempt or pity on either side." How true.

Anyhow T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), old and smart has the last word

"And youth is cruel and has no remorse

And smiles at situations which it cannot see.

I smile of course

And go on drinking tea."